Organic aquaculture supporting sustainable development in Madagascar: Interview with Mathias Ismaïl

20 December 2016

Bridges Africa met with Mathias Ismaïl, Chair of OSO Group S.A. and Chief Executive of R&O Seafood Gastronomy, in order to shed light on an ambitious project that has successfully turned sustainability standards into the driving force behind its business model thanks to a clear strategic vision and a committed approach. OSO is the seafood division of Groupe SOCOTA, one of the leading companies in the Indian Ocean with operations in Madagascar, Mauritius, and France. Groupe SOCOTA, founded in Antananarivo nearly a century ago, has a diversified portfolio of activities including textiles and clothing, agriculture, real estate, aquaculture, and seafood distribution.

How did the idea of establishing an organic shrimp farm in northern Madagascar originate?

The strategic vision that has guided OSO since it began is based on a simple equation and supported by highly complex implementation. Before the current organic trend in Western societies, and even before EU states enacted regulations governing organic production, OSO wanted to solve the following challenge: provide the most demanding international consumers with top quality gambas, from a gastronomic, environmental, and social point of view, originating from somewhere that already had a solid reputation for wild shrimp, i.e. Madagascar.

With this in mind, the objective was to provide markets with a sustainable alternative to wild shrimp – which is typically caught using a trawl net in overexploited oceans – as the impact of this practice on the seabed, the coast, and traditional fishing communities is criticised worldwide. We also wanted our approach to be socially responsible by changing the life and opportunities of the human community of Ankarana and Madagascar. The goal was therefore to guarantee gastronomic excellence supported by strong values that were recognisable at the point of sale. In order to convey these values, it became clear to OSO that it needed to obtain the highest quality certifications, both in terms of (organic) aquaculture production and on a social level, so that the brand’s clients could be guaranteed environmental sustainability along with social responsibility.

What have been the main challenges you have had to overcome in order to secure a sustainable business and development model?

The OSO project for organic gambas in Madagascar had to face three main types of barriers.

Regulatory Barriers

Organic agriculture is a highly regulated industry in Europe. When the OSO project was launched, the official texts that governed the organic sector covered the main agricultural species that were essentially linked to land-based production. Aquaculture production, including shrimp, did not have the necessary regulatory framework to claim the use of the “organic” label and the official recognition connected with the AB (Agriculture biologique – organic agriculture) logo, which is recognised by over 80 percent of French consumers.

OSO lobbied the French government until it introduced an official regulation, which was enacted on 13 February 2007, five years after we launched our site in the Ankarana region. From there, France built on OSO’s integrated model and used it as an example to convince the European Commission to harmonise the organic regulations applicable in the 28 member states. The harmonisation of production practices has been in effect since 1 July 2010.

Human and Technological Barriers

As it was the first project of its kind in the world, OSO invented innovative aquaculture techniques in order to reach – after a slow build-up – technical performances that were comparable to those of similar conventional production. OSO surrounded itself with the best zootechnical talent, from Madagascar and worldwide, and trained them in organic thinking, values, and “science” by shedding the paradigms that support intensive production practices in Asia and South America. As organic production practices prohibit the use of chemical products, antibiotics and other allopathic treatments, growth hormones, and genetically-modified organisms, OSO has focused on designing original farming techniques that respect the shrimp and their ecosystems since its inception. This approach was an enormous challenge for the men and women who built OSO.

Social and Environmental Barriers

SOCOTA’s ambition to set up its OSO farm in the middle of nowhere, at the foot of the Ankarana Special Reserve, in an area of Madagascar that is cut off from the rest of the world for six months during the rainy season, was a real challenge. This region of Madagascar is inhabited by the Antakarana tribe, a traditional, young, and proud people who have historically been impoverished and isolated. Thanks to the OSO project, these people have been able to benefit from free access to quality medical care and communication channels. Furthermore, the company arranged for drinking water to be supplied to the Ampapamena village (3,000 people), and an educational facility for children was set up thanks to the École de Félix Foundation – which was recognised as being in the public interest by the Malagasy state in 2014. However, the OSO project has especially enabled the provision of secure jobs, particularly for women, for a population that was still surviving off fishing and traditional agriculture for subsistence.

How would you describe the domestic and international regulatory environment in your sector?

OSO’s production of organic gambas in Madagascar is governed by EU regulations, both in terms of food safety and for the official “organic agriculture” certification of the production process. OSO has a sanitary approval number, which was granted by the relevant Malagasy authority, under powers delegated by the EU. This European sanitary approval number allows OSO to produce in Madagascar and to export worldwide, either directly or through equivalents. On a sanitary level, the international rules governing the food trade are generally consistent and recognised by the main consumer countries.

However, when it comes to organic certifications and regulations, the legal situation varies widely from country to country. To date, only the EU has managed to put in place common rules, by enacting Regulation No 834/2007 and its “aquaculture” component (Regulation No 710/2009). Implemented and controlled by the 28 signatory states, this regulation ensures the free movement of organically certified goods within the European Community. The other key consumer countries still do not have specific regulations for organic agriculture and, in some cases, do not recognise the EU’s official certification in their territory. For example, there is no reciprocity or recognition between European organic standards and those of the United States Department of Agriculture. This forces OSO, along with all the other producers, to obtain double certifications and, in some cases, to choose between one or the other, as production standards can be very different and non-compatible.

Table 1: The history of the OSO project in the Ankarana region of Madagascar

The capacity to convince the relevant agencies of the need for international equivalence regarding organic regulations, especially between the United States and Europe, is an important issue. We wish to see a legal gateway that would enable the harmonisation of organic production benchmarks, along the lines of what happened in the aeronautical industry with the “Joint Aviation Regulation”. This would set up a framework that would encourage the development of organic production capabilities, without forcing operators to choose between one regulation and another to access a given market. Why not a “Joint Organic Regulation”?

How do standards (especially the AB organic label) link production in Madagascar to the end consumers in Europe and Asia?

In Europe, the AB organic certification is an “official” recognition. Under powers delegated by the European Commission, the French state (in OSO’s case) controls and certifies, via a competent certified body, that the entirety of the production, transformation, and distribution chain for organic shrimp is in compliance with the EU’s organic regulations. This certification confers entitlement to use the AB (France) and Euro Leaf (EU) brands and logos free of charge on packaging. For example, the French agency for the development and promotion of organic agriculture (Agence Bio) advertises widely in mainstream media to increase awareness of organic products and of the AB logo and to encourage consumers to use organic products. This critical support is free for producers like us.

In Asia, as far as we know, there are no official regulations in key consumer countries such as Japan and China. Nevertheless, even without a regulatory framework for this type of production, these markets are starting to consume organic products. Since 2012, OSO has produced organic gambas from Madagascar specifically for Japan, highlighting the values of organic produce as well as the high quality of the OSO brand. It is an evolving market for organic goods and has significant growth potential for OSO.

What are the main success factors for companies operating in low-income countries when it comes to meeting the standards governing value chains in the aquaculture industry?

The secret of OSO’s organic approach can be summed up through three key factors of success. These key factors can be applied to any company, whether national or foreign, that operates in an environment characterised by a low level of economic development, such as Madagascar.

  • Continuously training our human capital, at all levels of the company – executives as well as employees – on the standards and protocols required for organic certification and mobilising all the company’s stakeholders around the AB requisites. This ranges from the pond officer who ensures that the water renewal inlet mesh is cleaned properly to the senior executive responsible for the molecular biology lab who analyses the DNA of the gambas, in compliance with organic regulations, to make sure they are in good health.
  • Leadership, through a proactive management approach of our human resources and organisational structures in order to turn organic production processes into a founding, unifying element of the company – a corporate philosophy that is based on a deep respect for nature and people.
  • Excellence, because this quest, this ambition, has become the fabric of an isolated human community that set itself the task of producing gambas of unique quality in the Ankarana region of Madagascar through the continuous pursuit of progress and innovation.

Is biosecurity an important issue in Madagascar? If so, how have you addressed it?

Biosecurity is a major challenge for aquaculture in Madagascar and in the Indian Ocean region in general, especially since 2011 when the WSSV (White Spot Syndrome Virus) pathogen was discovered in Mozambique. This pathogen affects decapods, which do not have an immune system and therefore do not develop antibodies. Since 2012, in order to preventively protect northern Madagascar, and particularly the Diégo-Suarez area, OSO has implemented significant scientific and technical measures.

OSO has a molecular biology lab certified by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) with a daily output of 600 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests in order to analyse all the decapods of the Malagasy coast and thus detect potential infectious animal diseases. OSO conducts approximately 37,000 PCR analyses per year as part of epidemiological surveillance measures covering the entire western coast of Madagascar and specifically an enhanced control area that goes from the town of Majunga (western part of the island) to Cape Amber (northern tip).

Alongside biosecurity measures for the OSO site in Ankarana and the epidemiological surveillance of marine environments, OSO has launched an ambitious R&D programme to domesticate shrimp stocks that have a natural immunity to pathogens, in particular the WSSV pathogen. This R&D programme, which requires significant technical, scientific and financial resources in Madagascar and Taiwan, is promising for the future and consolidates OSO’s position at the cutting edge of progress in the field of sustainable, responsible aquaculture.

According to you, what is the future of aquaculture in Madagascar and, more generally, in Africa?

According to the Global Aquaculture Alliance, the international production of shrimp represented approximately 7 million tons in 2016, approximately 60 percent of which came from aquaculture. Aquaculture’s share went from zero to almost two thirds in 30 years. Global demographic growth – and in particular Africa’s population growth – brings with it the need to feed the planet while effectively managing the environmental impact, which is a fantastic opportunity for the aquaculture industry and specifically African and Malagasy aquaculture. Global overfishing is another important rationale in favour of sustainable aquaculture.

Aquaculture is a heavy, capital-intensive industry with long returns that depend on the vagaries of nature. In order to develop, this sector needs political and regulatory stability, particularly for land and taxes. In general, the aquaculture sector contributes substantially to the balance-of-payments of these economies and creates jobs in coastal regions that are often impoverished. However, it is still in its infancy in Madagascar and Africa, and everything remains to be done.

In order to develop, aquaculture also needs strong support from the state to give a sense of direction regarding blueprints for the implementation of production areas, scientific training, heath monitoring and prevention, and scientific research to produce endemic species that are adapted to African ecosystems.

The African continent has significant potential, both for marine aquaculture and land-based fish farming – which can foster economic growth, earn foreign currency, and, above all, create jobs. Some experts consider aquaculture to be a potential pillar of the “blue revolution.”

This interview was conducted on 6 December 2016.

This article is published under
20 December 2016
Fishing plays a crucial economic role in many human communities around the globe. How can trade-related policies contribute to the sustainable management of halieutic resources? The ocean is a vital...
20 December 2016
Developing a blue economy in West Africa will require fostering fisheries value chains. How can support policies be revised for the region to better harness the opportunities offered by the fisheries...